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Feeling Low, Anxious, Overwhelmed? … Get Your Vowels Checked

AcronymShirley Buttigieg shares an easy-to-remember acronym for improved well-being, along with further reading suggestions.

I first came across the vowel check in Dr. Brené  Brown’s book The Gifts ofImperfection ¹. It actually originated in 12 step programs (for recovery from addiction, compulsion, and other behavioural difficulties), but it can be a valuable tool for anyone seeking self-reflection and personal growth. It comes in the form of six questions that prompt us to take care of ourselves, a habit that when practised regularly, may help to improve one’s emotional and physical well-being.

 —  Have I abstained today?

This not only applies to addictive behaviours, but also to unhelpful habits and thinking, often triggered by stress.  These can include comfort eating, aimlessly surfing the web, drowning oneself in work, as well as overthinking, second guessing and berating ourselves.  Johann Hari² believes that the opposite of addiction is genuine human connection. He thinks that if we don’t manage to connect with ourselves and others, we will connect with whatever is temporarily soothing but often numbing, and in the long run, destructive. The key to overcoming this tendency is to identify alternative healthy responses to the triggers that lead to numbing.  Below are some practical suggestions.

Woman With Dog

E  —  Have I exercised today?

The multiple benefits of exercise are widely known but many struggle with starting this healthy habit or find it difficult to keep at it.  Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits ³, believes there is a way around this.  He suggests setting yourself a small goal which you should be able to manage to attain even on your worst days. He uses the example of doing one push-up daily without expecting more from yourself.  Gradually you’ll start feeling so proud of managing to stick to this goal (because it’s so easy to attain) that you’ll find yourself wanting and doing more than the minimal set goal. The key is to keep at it daily until it becomes part of your routine, and be content even if you only manage to do one push-up, because you’d still have reached your daily target, and you’re already doing more than not exercising at all.  Incidentally, this method can be applied to other healthy habits you want to incorporate in your life, but ideally you start with only one until that becomes a habit, before you introduce a next one.

I  —  What have I done for myself / I today?

When we continually put our needs last, our well-being is likely to suffer.  As the old adage goes, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’- if you neglect taking care of yourself, you will soon realize you can’t adequately care for others, be it a child, a depressed friend or a sick parent.  An integral part of self-care is incorporating play into your day, doing something just for the pleasure of it. Dr. Stuart Brown ⁴ believes that play is as essential to our emotional well-being as sleep and nutrition are to our mind and body.  He warns that the opposite of play is depression, so do make it a point to engage in one daily cherished activity, without feeling guilty or apologetic. Remember, you’ll be doing yourself and others a favour as you will feel replenished and more pleasant to be around!

O  —  What have I done for others today?

Let’s face it, sometimes we get so self-absorbed, busy and preoccupied with our personal stuff that we often neglect our loved ones, forgetting the joy that comes from doing good deeds for others.  In his book The 5 Love Languages ⁵, Dr. Gary Chapman suggests that figuring out the primary love language of those close to us, can help us identify what makes their heart swoon.  If you’re lost for ideas, go ahead and ask them “Is there anything I can do for you today?” or “How can I make your day better?”. Big or small, focus on doing things that you think will make others glad and grateful to have you in their life.  


U  —  Am I holding on to unexpressed emotions?

The more you suppress your emotions and keep them bottled up inside, the more likely they are to fester and undermine your connection with yourself and others. This is partly why therapy works for several people. It’s because it allows the expression of one’s innermost feelings and this in itself is healing. Writing in a personal journal is also an effective practice to release difficult emotions. It is also useful in helping you think about a personal problem and figuring out ways of approaching it.  Remember you don’t have to be alone with your upsetting feelings. If you don’t afford therapy, reach out to free service providers such as kellimni.com and Support line 179.

Y  —  Yeah! – what is something good that has happened today?

Looking out for things that went well and you are grateful for can help you develop a more positive outlook on life. Remember, you can be grateful even when things appear to be negative on the surface but really aren’t.  So, “I’m so mad I almost ran over that cyclist!” can be reframed to reflect a more positive reality: “Oh I’m so glad I managed to brake on time!” Going a step further and sending blessings his way to become a more prudent biker can also help to keep you calm and save you both your sanity. Remember, gratitude is strongly associated with happiness and that’s reason enough to include the Yeah in this vowel check even though Y is not a vowel!


¹ Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing, 2010).

² Johann Hari, Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong. (video) TED Talk (2015), 

³ Stephen Guise, Mini Habits (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).

⁴ Stuart Brown with Christopher Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Penguin Group, 2009).

⁵ Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2015).

Shirley Buttigieg

About Shirley Buttigieg

Shirley has obtained a Bachelor of Psychology from the University of Malta and a Master’s degree in Gestalt Psychotherapy from the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute of Malta. She has been practicing psychotherapy for almost ten years and through her lived experience as a long-term partner, parent (and ‘student’) of two teens, as well as the child of aging parents, Shirley enjoys working with youth and adults across all ages. 

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